Our road trip west taught me I need to take it easy. If you drive West beyond Ohio or south past DC you’ll note that the pace of life changes dramatically and that it’s encouraged to make eye contact and greet strangers. After spending my first 18 years in Illinois I was shocked by the cool attitudes of the coastal elites. I missed eye contact with people I met in hallways or on the street and eventually I became the same way, averting my eyes and ignoring everyone around me. I hated it but every time I greeted a stranger I waited for someone to pat my head and tell me, “oh no, sweetie, we don’t do that here”, but of course, no one would tell me that because they were busy ignoring my existence, or worse, glaring at me like I was the village idiot. As my own attitude grew colder I became a more aggressive driver and my fuse was much shorter when it came to minor annoyances.
Our trip west reminded me that not everyone is an asshole. Cars merged long before construction zones resulting in the flow of traffic continuing at a decent yet safe pace, gas station clerks engaged in conversation, random strangers were downright friendly. It was nice. People feel less alone when they recognize we’re all part of a bigger community. You’d think Albany was made of tiny islands.
So I made a resolution. I would not let other people’s assholery ruin my day. I would relax more when driving. I wouldn’t let a screaming client stress me out. I’ve been semi-successful. On occasion I’ve had to repeat my new mantra, “I will not let other people’s assholery ruin my day” but that doesn’t meant that some shit hasn’t gotten under my skin or that I haven’t dealt with road rage. But as long as I could repeat those words it was a nice reminder that there is more to life than being pissed about other people being assholes.
Then there was last night. Like many people this time of year, I’ve been prepping for house guests which means some minor renovations and, you know, fixing up that one room that’s been on my to-do list for a year, clearing the crap out of my spare room and making sure my house can comfortably sleep eight. So during the last few weeks sleep has been a luxury and yesterday was my burn-out day. I decided to drive from downtown Albany back up via Central Avenue. Between State Street and Fuller Road I was cut off no fewer than six times. Sometimes people blew lights or stop signs or turned without looking or changed lanes without a signal. Each time I would repeat, “I won’t let someone else’s assholery ruin my day”. It’s an awkward phrase to say the least and Drew thought I sounded like a mental patient. When we were home walking dogs I told him I needed a catchier way to express this sentiment while still reminding me of that feeling I got back in Montana. I needed something to center and calm me and effectively shift my mood.
And then it came to me: Fried Chicken. I decided I would say, “fried chicken” when I’m letting shit get to me. Fried chicken is my happy place. It reminds me of my grandma. It reminds me of the Midwest. It reminds me of hundreds of delicious meals. Fried chicken reminds me there is good in the world and I need to chill out and focus on bigger things. Like fried chicken.
My first opportunity was this morning at 6:30 and I failed in my mission. Walking the dogs on a beautiful side street we passed two teenagers walking with shovels. Usually walking dogs is the exception to the rule in Albany of ignoring strangers. And since the hour was early and we passed closely and were the only people on the street I greeted them warmly. I don’t know why I’d expect teenagers to do anything more than ignore me, but goddamn it, I expected more than them to shift their eyes and pretend they didn’t see us – two human beings and two rather large canines. I said “Good morning” as we passed the first and “Hi” to the second, they both looked away. Instead of screaming “Fried Chicken” at them, in my head I was screaming, “fuck you, you rude-ass motherfuckers where the fuck are your manners?!?”. I realize this is also not exactly polite but it’s not like I said it to their faces even though I was tempted. I’m giving myself a free pass because it was early enough that I’d forgotten about last night’s Fried chicken resolution and because they WERE rude assholes. Next time I’ll remember fried chicken, let it go, and feel better.
I learned how to drive on a dusty gravel road lined with farmhouses and cornfields. It was in my granddad’s old burgundy Ford pickup with vinyl seats and a radio that picked up no fewer than three country stations that I first started “driving”. It started with sitting on grandpa’s lap and steering because my legs were too short to reach the pedals. After a growth spurt in 5th grade I knew my feet would reach the pedals and I would whine and beg to sit in the driver’s seat and putter down the road at 15 mph. I don’t remember the first time I was finally allowed to man the pedals but I do remember swearing the only automobile I’d ever own would be an old beater of a pickup truck. My environmental sensibilities nixed the desire to drive a truck, however, my love for driving was born out there on that gravel road in rural Illinois.
I marvel at the Eisenhower Interstate System. While I also understand that some of the wonders of the United States were lost to the Interstates (including older highways like parts of Route 66, family homes and blasted mountains), I am inspired by these relatively safe roads that so easily take us all over the country. The modern American likely does not consider the struggles of our earlier settlers traveling through unexplored territories. Obviously this doesn’t take into account the far older history of Native Americans and their own explorations.
When I moved to Albany from Illinois I always thought I’d moved to a beautiful mountain-filled area of the country. I have traversed the length of the New York State Thruway and Northway several times in my time here. Last year, Drew and I even took 95 as far down as Savannah (because, really, who would want to go any further than that?). I’ve made other trips taking me through Ohio, Kentucky, Indiana, and so many other states. But none of those trips prepared me at all for the wonder that is driving west.
Day one took us on the familiar trip home to the Illinois side of the Mississippi River. Day two took us through Iowa, Minnesota and to the far side of South Dakota. South Dakota was more entertaining than I thought it would be as the Interstate was lined with amusing billboards and wide open plains. The landscape remained unchanged as the sun was setting when suddenly the horizon opened up to the Missouri River. It came out of nowhere and was breathtakingly beautiful! And sadly, with three more hours to go to get to our destination of Rapid City it was dark as we drove through the Badlands. We awoke the next morning long before dawn and drove into the Black Hills National Forest in order to see Mount Rushmore. We arrived at the break of dawn and there was no one taking money at the entrance. Only two other people were at the monument. It was cool but much smaller than I expected. We decided to continue into the forest and see Crazy Horse. Unfortunately the fog was so dense we saw absolutely nothing at the memorial except for the guy working the shop who was a total dickass. We continued through the forest which was beautiful. Eventually the road deposited us onto the red roads of Wyoming. I was surprised by the oil drilling across the road from wide open fields of cattle. The cute little town of Newcastle was blighted by the Newcastle Refinery which created an odor that I think is still lingering in my nose. Approaching the mountains in Bighorn National Forest, an eastern spur of the Rockies, was just a taste of what was to come. I wish we had gotten on 14 and crossed Bighorn and the basin and continued to Yellowstone, but that will definitely be on the list for a future trip.
They don’t call Montana Big Sky Country for nothing. Other than the occasional mining in the mountains there was never an interruption to the beauty of the landscape. We watched lightning storms in the distance over the upcoming mountains. Drew and the dogs were dozing through an impressive show in the sky when we passed through Livingston. Oh Livingston. Did you know that Livingston is one of the windiest places in the USA? I didn’t. I’ve seen those crosswind warning signs on various highways in the past but have never really encountered anything like I did outside of Livingston. At first I saw something ahead blowing across on the highway and thought, gee, I think I just saw a crosswinds warning sign about a mile back. Seconds later the van was hit with such a gust of wind we swerved violently. And it wasn’t just us. All traffic suddenly slowed to 40-50 mph and moved into the right lane. I was behind a horse trailer that was all over the place. I was probably on my 3rd hour of driving and it took all my might to keep the van steady on the road. Drew and the dogs slept blissfully as my heart was racing and I tried to keep the van on the road. I couldn’t believe how hard it was to drive. It started raining but we passed into an area with mountains on both sides making it somewhat easier to manage. Bozeman was only a short trek further on up the road. We stopped at a gas station, I peeled my fingers off the steering wheel and walked inside in a total daze. I was embarrassed over what seemed like an overreaction on my part but I later learned that those crosswinds have turned over tractor trailers, at which point I realized I’m surely not the only person to have been totally freaked out by the Livingston Crosswinds. Bozeman was this mecca of good fortune, the gas station had a VARIETY of delicious fair trade organic coffees (what?!?) and I bought a winning scratch off ticket and won back my dollar (which I didn’t discover until days later, but I’ll hang onto it for my next trip back to MT!). Drew drove the rest of the day until we hit Missoula, a surprisingly progressive gem tucked in the middle of five mountain ranges. Missoula had those most-excellent drive-through coffee stands, great public transportation and a Five Guys. Score one to Missoula!
The next morning we drove around Missoula at dawn just to check things out. Passing by Hellgate High School we were intrigued by this mysterious little find of a town (and I wondered if there was a chosen one named Buffy at the school, is a hellgate the same as a hellmouth? Actually, the answer no but a hellgate is nearly as disturbing as the hellmouth, but with real people slaughters). As we hit the main highway I read the Missoula Wiki page to Drew as we enjoyed the sun dawning behind us, burning off the low fog over the Clark Fork River. We were in a construction zone which meant it was a slow drive, which was fine, it was one of the most beautiful drives we’ve ever taken. We were both in high spirits as we made our way through the Montana Mountains with an afternoon goal of Seattle. We were eager to continue west. Our slow morning ascent topped out at Lookout Pass, elevation 4,710 feet. Moments later the Idaho welcome sign appeared as the highway seemed to disappear. As the road cut sharply and steeply to the left I was stuck in the passenger seat looking down a sheer drop off. The only thing that was preventing us from going over was our ability to steer and a grossly inadequate knee-high jersey barrier. Typically this should be the point where I start taking pictures, instead I grabbed the suicide handle and proceeded to freak the fuck out. Luckily Drew expects this type of thing and was my rock in that driver’s seat. By this time the fog had completely dissipated and it was a gorgeous September morning, how on earth has anyone ever driven this in the snow?
Drew glanced over, failing to completely grasp the mortal peril we were in and asked, “Where’s your sense of adventure?!?” “Back in Missoula!!” I shrieked.
We continued on our terrifying adventure and were eventually rewarded with the truly spectacular views of Lake Coeur d’Alene. I’ll tell you this, my old notions of Idaho being a boring state known for potatoes is long gone. It’s been replaced by feelings of awe, wonder and sheer terror. I have a new state slogan for the state, “Idaho: Who knew?”
Crossing into eastern Washington was as depressing as I’d been warned. Unlike the surprisingly entertaining highways of South Dakota, eastern Washington was just a massive wasteland of nothing. I took over driving duties for this stretch since I was actually grateful for a boring, desolate stretch of roadway after my morning panic attack. I was doing well until we approached the Columbia River. We were climbing and the road suddenly dropped off sharply. I steeled myself but my mind was just full of images of me losing control of the van. It’s totally based on dreams where I’m driving and absolutely lose my ability to pilot the vehicle resulting in horrific crashes. But really, there’s no reason I should lose my ability to drive the car but I really started to panic. For as much as I love driving I think I have a real and valid phobia of mountains. Having grown up in the rolling plains I’ve never really been exposed to terrifying landscapes. Even my time in Albany and Arizona had done nothing to prepare me for the Rockies. My encounter with the Columbia River was nothing compared to the mountains in our rear view but I was a ball of nerves anyway. I spotted a scenic lookout pull off and quickly got off the road before I killed us all with my brain.
In a way we really benefited from my second freakout of the day because we would have otherwise missed out on the incredible views just a few miles from the environmental disaster that is the Hanford Site. We hopped back in the car, crossed the Columbia River and made our way to our next potentially dangerous part of the road, the Snoqualmie Pass in the Cascades, home of their own hazardous micro-climate and the only snow shed on all of I-90. After a day of clear skies and sunshine, as we drove into the Cascades and towards the pass, the weather turned predictably rainy and messy. But it was less scary than I’d been anticipating.
Seattle’s roads were a mess. I wonder if anyone lives in those $800,000 bungalows or if they just spend all of their time in traffic. I will never complain about Albany traffic again. Seattle drivers are fast (when traffic actually moves), aggressive and yet, they will ALWAYS stop for pedestrians. When we finally got off of the Interstate in the Greenwood neighborhood the first thing I noticed was a homeless person sipping coffee from a local coffee shop which totally gelled with my preconceived notions of Seattle: it’s completely unaffordable but has great coffee.
Our next big town was Portland. There was zero traffic, even during “rush hour”, people drive at or below the speed limit and take great care to look out for pedestrians and cyclists. We drove into downtown on a Friday in the late afternoon, easily found street parking and left that part of the city with all the other daily commuters in an organized, stress-free fashion. The street cars and buses each had their own dedicated lane and everything seemed to work smoothly. I thought maybe I was in some sort of lighthearted musical where everyone was going to break out in song at any moment, proclaiming the joys of laid-back Portland.
A few days later we found ourselves in the Rogue Valley of Southern Oregon. While the landscape was dramatic and there were mountains, the main Interstate wasn’t terribly scary (until the California border!). We stayed in Ashland. Most of the town is built onto the mountainside and the neighborhood roads can be treacherous. We stayed in a Cabin on Mount Ashland. It was on a dirt road 3 miles beyond where Google Streetview allows you to preview. I wasn’t aware we were going to be on a narrow, winding dirt road with a sharp drop off down the mountain and no railings. As we hugged the mountainside blind turn after blind turn I begged Drew to slow down. 10mph was just TOO FAST. Once at the cabin we realized why driving that road is worth it.
And really, after our stay in Ashland the rest of our trip lacked terror (unless you count the gas station bathroom in Bakersfield). We drove through Sonoma and Napa Valley at sunset. It looked like a pretty wine label! We enjoyed the San Francisco morning commute, complete with crotch rockets cutting between stopped cars. The Golden Gate was majestic and the new Bay Bridge was a masterpiece in bridge design (if you ignore the failing bolts). We had planned to take Tioga Road through Yosemite but part of the road was closing at night due to snow, you weren’t allowed to stop and get out of the car due to the fires and, frankly, I was a little more than scared of yet another mountain road at that point. So we decided drive straight south at high speeds down the 99 in California. I mean, who really wants to be at 9,000+ feet and encounter snow? Not me. I really do want to get back to Yosemite and make it its own trip with camping and hiking and all that jazz.
The deserts of Arizona and New Mexico were a welcome change of gorgeous, flat scenery with mountains in the distance. We were careful not to drive into the big hole in Arizona, but we did get awfully close to the edge on foot. The storm we hit in Texas was a doozy and we watched it from a distance for hours while the sun was setting behind us while still in New Mexico…and once the sun set, the lightning turned night into day. Spectacular doesn’t even begin to describe it. The rest of the roads were roads. Did I fail to mention Oklahoma? Oh good. The road grows prettier with each mile as you head north again and even Kansas didn’t fail to disappoint with its simple beauty except for that one oil field with the Jesus sign. Seriously, I’m wondering Where Would Jesus Drill? The only thing that’s changed on I-80 in Iowa from my childhood is that the pig farms and their old familiar smell now smell of the methane from factory farmed pigs. I let Drew cross the Mississippi on the I-74 bridge which normally I’d try to bypass since that rickety old thing is probably going to fall into the river one of these days.
Traveling these roads really opened my eyes to the country. It gave me a new sense of admiration for the big dreamers in our history; from the early explorers like Lewis and Clark to the architects of the Interstate Highway System. I was inspired, I was overjoyed, I was moved to tears by a redwood tree, I was scared out of my wits by mountain passes, I was pushed to my limit by wind but more than anything, I was alive.
Damn it, Albany, we have an image problem. No, strike that, we have a problem-problem. It’s not just image, it’s reality. In a recent Conde Nast Reader’s Choice Survey, Albany was rank 7th in the least friendly cities in America. We’re probably unfriendly because this isn’t the greatest place to live. This morning when I was blow-drying my hair I was thinking about Austin (#5 on the Friendliest list). Before they brought in Nano, everyone was talking about how Austin was a model for Albany’s future. I laughed to myself thinking, how could that be? On its current track, there’s no way in hell that will ever happen, and I’ll tell you why, it’s the COMMUNITY that makes Austin such a cool city. The politicians don’t care about us, the Albany taxpayers that keep this city afloat. I wonder if our high taxes are their way of trying to push us out in order to make us solely tax haven for business. I know a lot of really cool people who live in Albany. And there is a lot to love about our fair city. But it’s not enough. High taxes, political corruption, violence and general neglect all plague our city’s future.
Whenever someone comes up with an idea to revitalize Albany it only seems to involve tax breaks for businesses. That’s why I’m so ticked off about the Start-Up NY tax giveaway that just passed. I sat in at an Eagle Hood Neighborhood Association meeting and listened to Pat Fahey try to justify a vote that basically gave away our neighborhood’s backyard to more tax-free businesses. We live in a VERY middle class neighborhood that pays outrageously high taxes to live in this dying city. And we pay those taxes because the politicians have given away over 60% of the property in this town to tax-free business and government entities. Fahey tried to talk about much revenue ONE professor at Nano brought into the community, except for the fact that she couldn’t tell us how many of those professors actually LIVE in Albany. Let me ask you, if you were a PhD professor would you put your kids in a school with a 50% graduation rate? I’ll save you having to think about it. NO. You wouldn’t. You’d move to cookie cutter Clifton Park and put your kids in Shen. Fucking duh. These people aren’t moving to Albany.
Hey, I have an idea, let’s spend those tax dollars from the 40% of citizens footing 100% of Albany’s tax bill on a CONVENTION CENTER. Because, ya know, EVERYONE is itching to have their convention in Albany. We have awesome attractions and can compete with other fantastic cities like New Orleans because we have a totally unique culture of apathy and hot dogs and that’s way cooler than Mardi Gras and po’boys. Jennings must’ve smoked crack with Toronto’s mayor while watching Field of Dreams if he thought that was a good idea. For fuck’s sake.
You know what Albany needs? To support its community of people. To provide a good education to our kids. To create affordable, safe housing. To support SMALL business, I mean like Cheese Traveler and AOA small. To create a thriving haven for artists, musicians, writers and just plain passionate people. These are the things that are at the heart of the greatest cities in this country. And there is a spark of that happening. It’s funny how a little website like All Over Albany has started to build that awesome community. It’s fostered friendships, propped up small businesses, highlighted cool things happening in the region and created a really nice forum full of thoughtful people who want more for this area. So maybe we’re a part of a new beginning in Albany. We need change. We need a better future. We need to get on Conde Nast’s good side ‘cause that shit is downright embarrassing.
I honestly don’t recall how I found Talk of the Nation from NPR. Our local NPR affiliate, WAMC, doesn’t carry it. I probably picked it up when I started listening to podcasts years ago and just checked out random NPR programs I’d never heard before. If you follow me on Twitter, bear with me as I eulogize this program in greater detail than the 140 characters allowed in that medium.
Talk of the Nation was NPR’s call-in radio program. And it’s not the call-in radio program that’s become notorious for its yelling and shaming of callers for expressing their opinions. Talk was different. The program was skillfully moderated by host and NPR veteran, Neal Conan. Experts would speak about their topic and callers would share their stories and ask questions. All political opinions were given a voice. Ideas were presented, challenged and discussed in civil fashion. Civil is the best word to describe the program. That’s not to say there weren’t passionate stories. Not a week would pass without me shaking my fist, laughing or crying. More than anything else the show made me listen, consider and grow. I learned so much from the in-depth coverage of important events like the crisis in Syria. But they didn’t just cover politics; no topic was too light or too heavy. It was a wonderful balance and there were always callers who could contribute their personal story to the conversation. Even when a caller was way off the mark or didn’t understand the depth of the discussion, Neal found a way to engage and bring them into the discussion. I found every episode compelling – even the ones that didn’t seem appealing to me when looking at the topic. Neal and the conversation presented always wormed its way into my heart, no matter the topic.
On Wednesdays, Political Junkie, Ken Rudin joined Neal to discuss all things politics. All sides were skewered when deserved, analyzed and discussed in a charming and engaging fashion. In this segment they’d even get democrats, republicans and other voices all together at once for an engaging and enlightening discussion. Where else can you find that?
Last year, one of the most memorable stories came not from a guest, but a caller; a farmer named Rich who talked about his family farm. You can listen to it here (he comes on towards the end of the segment). When they were doing their year-end retrospective, they brought Rich back for an update. His segment is at the beginning of this piece and it will stay with me for the rest of my life.
In a country that’s becoming more polarized by the day, I found Talk of the Nation gave me hope. It gave me hope that people can still talk to each other. It gave me hope that there was still common decency and that people are generally good. It gave me hope that good journalists still care about reporting for the sake of the people and not the ratings. It gave me hope for the future. Period.
I can’t even begin to figure out what NPR’s motivation is for canceling a program that is in the top 10 of ALL radio programs in the country. The show brought in over 3 million listeners each week and is at an all-time high in its ratings. No other show offers a platform for the people to share their stories in such a constructive and meaningful way. I just don’t get it. I can’t wait to find out what Neal does next. But no matter what, the cancellation of this show is a major loss for public radio and civil conversation.
You can read Neal’s full farewell here but this is the heart of his goodbye:
So right here, I form my own private compact with NPR and my member stations. I will listen and, yes, I will open my checkbook, but I need some services in return. Go and tell me the stories behind everything that happened in the world today. Explain why it happened, and how it affects our lives. Do it every day. Tell me what’s important, and don’t waste my time with stupid stuff. Bye-bye. Signing off for TALK OF THE NATION and from NPR News, I’m Neal Conan, in Washington.
Drops mic, walks out of studio.
Last night Drew put on a tie and I freshened my lipstick and we hit up Albany’s new Speakeasy. We rang the doorbell, were buzzed in and went back in time about 90 years. It was a quiet evening and we had table reservations. We quickly discovered it was a good move to put Drew in a tie (and my friends would likely argue I should’ve worn high heels but I just can’t do it). The patrons and the wait staff were all incredibly good-looking and well dressed. Ties aren’t necessary, a nice collared shirt and jacket would do the trick as well. Our waitress was impossibly beautiful and appropriately styled for the period. Everyone on staff really seemed to enjoy their roles and we felt warmly welcomed. Also, the stone bar, brick and stone walls were incredible. The little kerosene lamps on the hive patterned tabletops were also a nice touch. The smell of kerosene really added to the atmosphere.
Drew started with a Jack Rose, a boozy appley drink that was a perfect balance of sweet and tart – like a good apple. I had the Smoking Bluegrass. The bartender came to the table, set a small pile of lemongrass alight and set my glass over the top to take in the smoke while he put his cocktail shaker to work. It smelled (and tasted) magnificent! We ordered a dozen oysters and a meat and cheese plate. Maybe I’m just hardcore and prefer my oysters plain, so I wasn’t wowed by the vermouth based mignonette. I also thought it was a small misstep that their oysters were sourced from the west coast. We’re a mere 3 hour drive from excellent oyster territory, if I’m eating raw oysters I want to be as close to the source as possible for freshness. The charcuterie and cheese plate was thoughtful, if on the small side. It included my favorite cheese, Berkshire Blue. Generally I love surprise tastings of new cheeses and meats but I suppose I’m starting to eat enough different cheeses that I’m bound to run into something I know from time to time! They had another hard cheese that was cumin spiced that was really wonderful and I cannot recall the name! Three pieces of prosciutto was a little scarce for the meat portion but it was still tasty. The toast and the apple chutney rounded out the plate and the chutney had a nice little kick to it that sneaks up on you!
Our second round of drinks were just as enjoyable as the first. Drew tried the Corpse Reviver, a delicious blend of gin, lillet, curacao and lemon or lime juice. Again, the perfect blend of sweet and tart resulted in a refreshing and satisfying cocktail. This time I went for the Triple Threat…a mezcal based drink with muddled jalapeño and included a pickled chunk of pineapple. Woohee! It had a terrific kick to it and finishing it off with that pickled pineapple was savory but also cooling. This place is all about finishing touches.
The cocktails were all $12, so between those and the food we made it out for $90 plus tip. This place is CASH ONLY so don’t leave home without it. Go here for reservations: http://speakeasy518.com/
We had such an incredible time we didn’t want the evening to end (but had limited cash!) so we meandered upstairs to enjoy the credit card accepting, City Beer Hall. If you saw a couple of questionable Tweets in my timeline you can see that this where I crossed my line from fun to too much fun. Those cocktails finally hit me as I was about halfway through my Evil Twin Falco. I’ve tried every Evil Twin beer I can get my hands on since falling in love with the Evil Twin Soft Dookie I tried at CBH last year. I also saw Falco as a sign thinking of Edie Falco who is probably in deep mourning for the loss of her TV husband, James Gandolfini. So we had a toast to the Sopranos. That beer was bright, citrusy and full of delicious hops. Really nice for summer drinking. We ordered the truffle popcorn (AMAZING) and a couple of pizzas. I became friendly with “Rebecca” who was sitting next to me, enjoying her first evening ever at CBH. I hope my hiccups weren’t too off-putting!
Kudos to the folks at CBH for a couple of really fantastic and unique Albany experiences. And thanks once again to the fine folks at CDTA who get us home safe and sound each and every time!! I suppose since I’m doing my thank you speech I’m also gonna give a shout out to my middle-of-the-night go-tos: water and vitamins. And also to greasy bacon and eggs, coffee and Reed’s Ginger Brew – I wouldn’t be here today without you guys!
Kudos to Troy for Saturday’s awesome Food Truck Festival. The location was excellent and the turn-out, spectacular. It’s a shame Albany couldn’t get its act together and take advantage of this kind of event. So good for Troy – it’s trying. Maybe that should be Troy’s new slogan – ‘at least we’re trying!’. And while Troy is trying, Albany is missing the boat big-time. It’s like Albany can’t get out of its own way politically and it’s suffocating the city. Our schools have been destroyed by the failed charter experiment. First our kids suffer and then our community starts to crumble. No one wants to move to an area with failing schools, an old political machine and crappy, old restaurants. It’s not like all of our restaurants are crappy – some are great, fresh and new – but there isn’t a lot of competition in the way of actual quality restaurants.
My friend and I showed up at the Food Truck Fest close to 1PM. At that point it was already packed solid. It was a gorgeous day and the vibe was pretty laid back. The saddest part of the event was, after nearly an hour in line and having only moved a dozen feet, my companion and I had to bail. I was getting sunburnt and both of us were melting in the heat. We went over to Dinosaur BBQ which was handling some of the spillovers like us – and while there was still another 45 minute wait there – at least we could do it inside and off our feet.
We were pretty sad we had to abandon the festival – but at the same time, I’m proud of our community for the incredible turn-out. I think this shows you that the people of the Capital Region have a strong desire for a more vibrant food and event culture. We want more! We’ve all seen these Food Network and Travel shows where they show parks full of food trucks on nights and weekends. We’ve seen the specialty diners and exciting, fancy restaurants. And what do we have to fulfill that need in the Capital Region? We have NWBB and, if we’re lucky to work in an area that’s food truck friendly, some of us can occasionally experience the joy that is food trucks between 11 and 2 on weekdays.
Can you imagine a Washington Park that, during the nights and weekends, had relaxed live music and food vendors? That’s the kind of thing that’s going to draw people to our down-town. And Albany, if we don’t act quickly, Troy is going to beat us to it. Instead of Albany being a great go-to, we Albanians are going to demand more bus service between Troy and Albany so we can leave town and Enjoy Troy on the weekends. The best case scenario would be that Albany and Troy BOTH work to bring in exciting entrepreneurs who want to IMPROVE our cities with independent retail and restaurants. We have to get rid of the favorites system in Albany, our city is never going to flourish if it only rewards the politically connected. Once we start working on these issues maybe we can talk about a light rail system between Albany, Troy, Schenectady and Saratoga. THESE are things that will make our cities a destination for tourists and residents. Duh.
The first couple of months of the new year are always the hardest when it comes to budgeting. And due to a few major setbacks, this year has been especially tough.
We love food. We cook adventurous things and dine out on a whim. I’ll readily admit frugality goes out the window at the slightest temptation or craving. I am completely aware of how spoiled we’ve been by this luxury but during the month of February we’ve been getting creative in stretching our food budget. It’s meant not being tempted by lunch specials at a nearby café and instead sticking to a packed lunch every day. It’s meant no fast food on those nights when I’m too tired to cook.
A lot of this is common sense, but I thought I’d share some of the techniques and recipes that have kept us going.
1 –Track your receipts (I use a simple budget spreadsheet in Excel) and just LOOK at where you’re spending your money. It’s easier to make cut-backs when you can see exactly how much you’re spending on certain items.
2 – Set a budget. Decide how much you want to spend on each meal or over a certain time period. Eating a few extra cheap meals will allow you to splurge on something nice elsewhere.
3 – Plan plan plan! I use a spreadsheet where I can plan my meals, grocery lists and estimate how much items will cost. This gives me a good idea of how much I’ll be spending on ingredients, an entire meal, a full week of meals, etc. Make a cell for every meal and plan for every one of those meals.
4 – Low & slow – try to make a large amount of food at once to hold over for several days. Get creative with your cooking. If you’re a meat-eater, one of the foods that will sustain you longer than anything else is a whole chicken. I dry roast it low and slow to make a delicious chicken dinner. Two of us can get a couple more meals of chicken sandwiches or something similar and once it’s picked it over pretty well, throw it in a pot of water and make stock. From the stock make a soup with good fillers like noodles, barley, greens, root veggies and you have a bunch of hearty meals. These can even be frozen for later. A local, free range chicken should set you back about $10-$12 and you can get at least 10 meals for two people.
A humanely raised 3 pound pork Boston butt roast will probably set you back close to $30, which is a lot of up-front cost – but you can get several meals out of it. I made one recently. We ate 8 sandwiches and I still have a fair amount left. Tonight I’m going to use the leftovers in macaroni and cheese. I’m going to soak the macaroni in my homemade bbq sauce before mixing in the cheese sauce and pulled pork. We’ll get at least 8 more meals out of this. Yes, the additional components of cheese, milk and macaroni cost money, but it’s still a minimal investment.
While Drew is not opposed to the taste of black beans, he is not fond of the side effects. After a bit of research I found a great bean soaking method that really gets rid of whatever it is in beans that causes gas. I’ve recently made two black bean-centric dishes and neither of them caused any ill effects. The hot soak method from this website works wonders: http://calbeans.org/bean-basics/preparation/soaking-methods/
For each pound of California dry beans, any variety, add 10 cups hot water. Remember, beans will rehydrate to at least twice their dry size, so be sure to start with a large enough pot. (Note: Up to 2 teaspoons of salt per pound of beans may be added to help the beans absorb water more evenly.) Heat to boiling, let boil two to three minutes. Remove from heat, cover and set aside for four hours or more. The longer soak time is recommended to allow more sugars to dissolve, thus helping the beans to be more easily digested. Whether you soak the beans for an hour or several hours, discard the soak water.
I haven’t used the salt (which I think will also keep your beans from splitting) and each time I’ve done this I’ve let it sit for 6+ hours. After draining and rinsing the beans I add enough water to cover them by an inch or more and boil them for about an hour and a half.
I’ve been using a one pound bag of dried beans in recipes that call for 2 15-1/2 oz cans of beans.
I took my cooked beans, mashed them with some vinegar, cumin and Arizona dreaming spice and made soft shell tacos with the beans, chipotle slaw, feta cheese, cilantro and a squeeze of lime. We got 12 tacos out of that. It probably cost $12 to make everything. Instead of tacos, you could also take these same ingredients, plus a few others, to make awesome black bean burgers.
It’s all about taking cheap ingredients and finding different ways to use them; kind of in the same way as Marge Simpson and her bargain basement Chanel suit.
I found Daniel Berman’s Cooking Out the Cold recipes to be hugely inspiring. I went to Parivar and bought a big ass bag of dried garbanzos and have now even made a more from-scratch style of Chana Masala. His recipe calls for a box mix of spices, but I usually have everything on hand you’d need to make it properly. It’s only a couple more steps and tastes better. A meal like that probably costs less than a quarter per serving and is incredibly satisfying.
Lately, we’ve been working our way through a Mrs. London’s country loaf every morning for breakfast. It’s pricey upfront, but it works out to a pretty cheap breakfast when spread over a week. But to save us on even that, I’ve been developing a sourdough starter and am going to take a stab at the Tartine loaf in a few weeks. I’m also making my first chevre cheese which we can use on bagels or in a cheesecake or on a salad. I adore chevre and despite the outrageous price of goat’s milk, it’s a lot cheaper to make than buy and I cannot believe how easy it is. I say that now, but the test will be how it holds up after I bag it tonight.
Like I said, a lot of this is common sense, but hopefully it provided a bit of inspiration. What do you do to trim your budget in the kitchen? Please feel free to share your ideas in the comments.